From the first time Professor Ruth Bishop looked into her microscope and saw the distinctive wheel shape of the rotavirus, she was struck by its beauty.
It was the early 1970s, and Professor Ruth Bishop, then a young bacteriologist, was leading a team of scientists on the Melbourne Children’s Campus (The Royal Children’s Hospital, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the University of Melbourne), searching for the cause of childhood gastroenteritis.
This deadly illness was causing the deaths of millions of children around the world. Each year, about 10,000 Australian children were hospitalised with the disease – yet no one had been able to pinpoint the cause.
Professor Bishop had concluded that the infectious agent behind the disease had to be a virus. In 1973, working with colleague Professor Ian Holmes at the University of Melbourne, she and her colleague Professor Graeme Barnes sent intestinal biopsies taken from children with acute gastroenteritis for electron-microscopy examination.
It was immediately clear the cells were infected with a wheel-like virus. The new virus, named ‘rotavirus,’ was subsequently confirmed to be the cause of the severe diarrhoea that had taken so many young lives.
It was a discovery that would begin a revolution in public health. Now that the primary cause of acute gastroenteritis was known, the search for a vaccine could begin.
A vaccine against rotavirus, delivered at 6 to 8 weeks of age, became part of the vaccination schedule in Australia in 2007.
Since the introduction of the vaccine, hospital admissions for severe gastroenteritis in Australia have dropped to fewer than 2000 a year.
However, more than two thirds of the world’s children still do not receive a rotavirus vaccine, most living in low or middle-income countries.
Now the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, where Professor Bishop is an esteemed honorary fellow, has developed a vaccine that can be administered in the first few days of life.
The new oral rotavirus vaccine, RV3-BB, will be delivered at birth and provide the earliest possible protection against the virus.
While there is still work to be done on rotavirus, Professor Bishop’s efforts have saved millions of lives.
Now in her eighties, Professor Ruth Bishop is known for her humility and tenacity. In 2013 she became the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Florey Medal, and in 2019 was appointed a Companion to the Order of Australia.
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Illustrated by Antra Svarcs.